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Graph courtesy of the CDC.

Stomach flu: Winter is peak season for gastroenteritis, too, say experts

The Central Connecticut Health District advises the following to prevent becoming ill:

Wash your hands – Hand-washing is the single best way to prevent illness and disease. It is important to maintain adequate hand-washing while sick, especially when coming into contact with others, before and after using the restroom, changing diapers, and preparing food. Adequate hand washing includes a thorough wash on the tops and bottoms of hands, underneath fingernails and between fingers. An easy way to remember is to rinse hands, lather with soap and scrub for 30 seconds, or sing “Happy Birthday” twice. For more information, visit

If feeling symptomatic, the Central Connecticut Health District advises the following:

Stay Hydrated – This illness can quickly become fatal to individuals who do not adequately rehydrate, especially in young children and the elderly.

Stay home – Even if you are feeling slightly ill, it is best to stay home to prevent further infection as well as getting others around you sick. Symptoms usually last 24-48 hours, so it is best to rest up and let the illness pass.

When you take extra care to wash your hands this season, you may be protecting yourself not only from influenza, but also from the ‘stomach flu,’ which is medically known as viral gastroenteritis. School nurse Barbara Hegg, of Emma Hart Willard Elementary School in Berlin asked her colleagues and said that the consensus is that they noticed what appeared to be “a GI bug going around since Christmas.”

Overall, “we’re in no worse shape than any other winter,” Hegg said. School District Charge Nurse for North Haven Annette Sauerbrunn agreed that complaints have been normal for this time of year, and said that she hasn’t noticed gastrointestinal symptoms “out of the ordinary for peak flu season.” Memorial Middle School nurse Fran Ciarleglio said that she, too, noticed some stomach irritation and vomiting, but that it has been decreasing in recent weeks.

Viral gastroenteritis can be difficult to distinguish from colds or the flu, since they share many symptoms in common. The difference between the diseases lies in their cause: the influenza virus infects the respiratory tract, but stomach flu can be caused by a rotavirus, norovirus, or adenovirus. Rotaviruses, for example, infect the small intestine. Contagiousness varies depending on which virus is causing the illness. The CDC has noted that a new strain of norovirus, the Sydney strain, has emerged in 2012. Although the disease is widespread, it is not significantly more dangerous than any other norovirus, and rates of gastroenteritis have remained seasonally normal since the new strain emerged, the CDC said.

Whichever virus causes stomach flu, the result is the same: very uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms. “The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting,” Central Connecticut Health District Health Educator Lori DiPietro explained, citing the CDC. Other symptoms may include headache, fever, stomach ache, and abdominal cramps. The disease usually lasts 1 to 2 days, but may last 1 to 10 days depending on which virus caused the symptoms. The CDC says that the stomach flu viruses are also known to rise and fall with general flu season. Because of the risk of dehydration, it is crucial to stay hydrated while sick with stomach flu. “Most people think that it is beneficial to drink sports drinks that are high in sugar and salt, but natural remedies (or plain water) are more effective at keeping you hydrated,” DiPietro said. The National Institute of Health recommends drinking small amounts of water slowly when experiencing gastrointenstinal distress. This can decrease stomach upset and make it easier to keep water down.

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